SportsRace to the Derby


Fashion and history align at the Kentucky Derby

Posted at 12:56 PM, May 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-03 18:38:21-04

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (LEX 18) — Horses may take center stage on Derby day, but fashion is not too far off in the wings.

Some may wonder where did the tradition of wearing hats come from? The story goes back nearly 150 years when fashion was far different than it was for the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby.

The first running of the Derby was just after the Civil War. Over time at the track, there have been "changing silhouettes, the changing, different kinds of patterns, trends, different kinds of hats, things like that," said Jessica Whitehead, Curator of Collections at the Kentucky Derby Museum. "And of course hats were a major part of most day to day ensembles, until about the late 1960s, so the hat as a 'thing' for the Derby really didn't come around until after those weren't being worn every day and it was a special occasion to start wearing hats."

Whitehead explained in 1875, Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. came back from a trip to Europe so impressed with the sophistication of European tracks and how the visitors dressed that "he wanted to bring a little bit of that glitz and glamour back to Kentucky."

"His wife, reportedly...rode around in an open carriage all through town, dressed to the nines with her friends inviting people to come out to the racetrack that Inaugural Day in 1875," said Whitehead

LEX 18

Decades later, hats stuck and became part of the threadwork of a proper Derby outfit.

"There will always be haute couture. But there's also that wild and wacky home, homegrown DIY kind of cart of Derby and the Derby fashion experience that we all know and love and love to watch."

LEX 18

Some of those home-grown hats even making their way into the Kentucky Derby Museum.

"Gigantic hats out of materials they found that their home, you know, tissue paper trash bags that you wouldn't see anywhere else but here on Derby day," said Whitehead.

But for the 2021 Derby Day, another accessory was needed. "Just as you need a nice purse, you need a nice mask," said Whitehead.

She continued, "It's just one of those social trends that 100 years from now we'll look back and say, 'you know, that really tells us something about that period, and it was a piece of fashion that tells us that.'"

LEX 18